2016 was filled with many highlights for the Birmingham Hammers. And this blog has mainly focused on those highlights over the last year: the Hammers checked off their first season in the NPSL, they had an electric atmosphere when they welcomed Chattanooga FC to town in the first-ever NPSL league home match, and they won some hardware and bragging rights against Nashville FC and Memphis City FC respectively. You can read a couple of those posts here or here where I focus on the beautiful game’s popularity growing in the Magic City.
But for every milestone that the Hammers achieved in their inaugural NPSL season, there were more than a handful of stumbles and pitfalls. For starters, the Hammers only scored 10 goals during regular season play while giving up 19 to their league opponents. And their roster seemed to be a never-ending turnstile of collegiate talent that showed glimpses of brilliance, but never played long enough together to gel into a formidable NPSL club. And the table results (bottom of the table, 0.70 points per game), goal production (lowest in the conference), and porous defensive positioning (2nd most goals given up in conference) certainly indicate that the Hammers were not deserving of a playoff spot.
So what does it take to win in the NPSL and get this franchise growing? I mean, who am I to go there, right? I’ve never played competitive soccer. I have only coached a couple of U7 teams, and that’s about all of my soccer coaching prowess to date. I have certainly never started a sports franchise from the grassroots level up. Let me be clear: this article is not an indictment of the Birmingham Hammers front office, coaching staff, or players. That is not my intent and I hope it isn’t taken as such.
Listen, I want the Hammers to be around in the ‘Ham for a long time. I’m probably a lot like you: I am a fan of the Magic City and the beautiful game. The two of them together is like chocolate and peanut butter, peanut butter and honey, or smoke bombs and supporter groups (That’s for you MCB!). But at some point, the two can’t just merely exist together: on-the-field success is needed to generate more buzz for the team in the local media, build a larger fan base, and perhaps climb up the ladder of professional soccer success (or at least convince the city of Birmingham that it’s a good idea to build a 5,000-seat stadium in the Lakeview district downtown for local soccer clubs). And as I started looking at the publicly available data from the NPSL for the Southeast Conference last season, I noticed a couple of high level correlations to being a successful team in this league.
1. Players with experience matters in this league.
It seems self-evident, right? The more experienced players a team has playing with each other, the better outcomes. Chattanooga FC (16 different players) and Memphis City FC (11 different players) led the Southeast Conference with the number of players on their respective teams that started 4 or more games during the 2016 campaign. The minutes that these players accumulated throughout the season undoubtedly helped each team find success on the field. The players on these teams were able to develop that innate ability to know what their teammates were thinking, where to play the ball, when to switch off defensive responsibilities, when to take a shot. It’s not just a coincidence that these two teams met in the conference finals. This isn’t rocket science.
The Hammers were on the other end of the scale in this category in 2016. Only 5 Hammers players started 4 or more games last season as Coach Joel Person struggled to find a consistent starting XI. We are talking 4th division soccer in the US; of course there is going to be a natural turnover in rosters throughout the season due to injury, other responsibilities, etc… But for various reasons, many of the players that suited up in the red, blue, and yellow last season could only commit to a handful of games while other clubs in the league were able to maintain a better grasp of their core team.
The stated problem above was perhaps just a symptom of my second finding:
2. Older players in the core Starting XI proved to be invaluable for NPSL SE Clubs in 2016.
The average age of the players that consistently started for Chattanooga FC was 23.6 years old. The Hammers posted an average core starting XI age of 20.7, nearly 3 years younger than their rivals from the scenic city (and the youngest in the entire conference). What gives?
First of all, talent is talent, no matter what the age. It’s probably a poor analogy, but look at Christian Pulisic in the Bundesliga. If age was the only consideration, the boy should still be playing for Dortmund’s youth team. Yet, here is this 18-year old kid (an American, no less) that is churning up all sorts of minutes in the top level of German soccer and the European Champions League. Go figure.
So I get it… it’s not always about age. But age cannot be totally discounted for its role in building a successful 4th division club in the NPSL.
Why is age a factor? While purely speculative, my assumption is that the Hammers had many collegiate-aged soccer players that had to weigh whether or not it was worth it to risk bodily harm for a team and a league that was not paying their school tuition during their NCAA off-season (rightfully so!). It’s also safe to say that a good many of the players for the Hammers in 2016 were not necessarily from the Birmingham area. If they traveled home for a week or two, as any college-aged kid will do in the summertime, they were going to miss a few Hammers matches. It’s inevitable. But, the point I am making here is that it is a difficult task for a coach to develop a winning team if he doesn’t have a consistent player pool from which to pull.
On the flip side, Chattanooga FC and the New Orleans Jesters in particular were able to put together a core group of slightly older players. Some of these players have played multiple seasons together for their clubs. They have grown an appreciation for the club’s shield. They understand what it stands for… what they themselves stand for. They have a vested interest in seeing the game of soccer grow in their respective towns. And while the Hammers certainly have some players like that affiliated with the team, there has not been enough of them earning minutes.
Don’t get me wrong. Players like Bradley Louis, Harrison Smith, James Ngoe, Jordan Sinclair, Andrew Tortorich, and Deandre Robinson (to name a few) played their hearts out for the Hammers last season. Alex Brown, William White, David Valverde, Jack Ball, Julio Noel – these guys put forth quite an effort last season when they stepped on the pitch. You could see their passion for the club and fans. And it would be nice to see them back in Birmingham playing for the Hammers again in 2017. And if this core chooses to come back having another year’s experience under their belts, the play on the field should certainly reflect that. But the Hammers also need more senior leadership in the locker room. More AJ Adcocks. More Norris Howzes too. It proves to be invaluable in this league.
So where do the Hammers go from here? Personally, I think they have taken the right first step in bringing in new coach, Wulf Koch. What types of decisions should he be making now in order to drive a culture of success in the Spring? How does he, along with the front office, prepare for a 2017 campaign that will certainly have more pressure for results and a playoff run from the local fan base? Stay tuned to the Birmingham Backline next week for part 2 of this article in which I will discuss these things and more.
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